Sunday, July 19, 2009

Death For Five Voices (1995)

aka Tod für fünf Stimmen

Leave it to Werner Herzog to make a documentary about a Renaissance composer of vocal music I find actually watchable. It of course helps that the version of the composer (and mad Italian prince) Gesualdo's life Herzog prefers to tell - and which only the very gullible or atrociously optimistic would mistake for the historical truth about his life - has all the trappings of a Gothic horror story and just seems to be waiting for Riccardo Freda's or Mario Bava's ghost to appear and finally make a movie out of it.

Well, how gothic can it get? We have Gesualdo's murder of his unfaithful first wife and her lover (both corpses to be ravished by a traveling monk afterwards, oh yes), the hanging murder of Gesualdo's second son while a choir sings some of the composers madrigals to make the event more momentous, the man's employment of an alchemist to decipher the markings on a strange stone disk, some years of silent solitude and regular whippings by the good man's servants - the works. The only thing that's missing is a report that the Devil himself took Gesualdo's corpse with him to hell to get a band together, but after Herzog has gracefully dragged us through the presence of a lot of the assorted nutcases that fly to the legends about Gesualdo like moths to a flame (and who could blame them), this is only a minor oversight.

There is a real sense of glee about most of the film, an infectious love for the way legends have grown around the composer, with some of the more obviously faked moments of Herzog's documentary career (hello mad woman who supposedly thinks to be the reincarnation of Gesualdo's dead wife!) again making clear how little interest the director has in factual truth. With other, different truths - be they philosophical, artistic, emotional or just plain human - though, Herzog takes greatest care, and you won't ever find him laughing at even the strangest of human beings.

Between the respectfully treated people of dubious sanity or honesty, we as viewers are ourselves treated to performances of some of Gesualdo's works which (or so sources a lot more knowledgeable about vocal music than I am tell me) aren't the most accomplished, yet are in perfect emotional resonance with the wide-eyed acceptance of every bizarre thing imaginable Herzog shows, while sounding to my amateurish ears pretty damn interesting.

Death For Five Voices embodies quite perfectly what I love most about Herzog's documentaries - the fact that he is always honest about his lies.


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